What Can We Do About Battery Life?

by Reads (44,947)

Years ago, Palm users could look with condescension on the very short battery lives of WinCE computers, while bragging that their trusty Palm III went for months on a single pair of AAA batteries. How the times have changed. Earlier this month, Brighthand reviewed two high-end Palm OS devices, the Tungsten T3 and Clie UX50, neither one of which could run four hours without needing a recharge.

But I’m not here to bash Palm and its licensees. Today’s Pocket PCs have much longer battery lives than their predecessors, but they aren’t significantly better than most current Palm OS models. My iPAQ h1945 will last me several days without needing a recharge if I lay off the wireless networking. However, I can drain it in a day with too much Bluetooth use.

The problem is, we want it all. Almost everyone would prefer a handheld that has a large screen, a fast processor, plenty of memory, wireless networking, and is small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. The handheld manufacturers have been listening to our requests and creating handhelds that fit this description. And not a single one of them has a very long battery life.

Take a look at the iPAQ h4155. It has an amazing feature set: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a 400 MHz XScale processor, and 64MB of RAM, all in one of the smallest and sleekest devices around. I haven’t had a chance to test one yet but I predict it is going to have a terrible battery life.

But it isn’t like Palm, HP, or Sony have super-efficient batteries in a lab somewhere that they won’t use because they get some twisted enjoyment out of making us recharge our handhelds all the time. It is simply that the devices we want use power at a rate that drains the best batteries available in too short a time. And though batteries get better every year, handhelds need more power every year.

And it doesn’t look like the situation is going to get that much better any time soon. Though a great deal of money is going into developing replacements for batteries, nothing seems close to coming to fruition. One strong contender, methane fuel cells, got a setback last week. Toshiba said it hoped to have a fuel cell as big as an entire handheld on the market by 2005, not 2004 as it had first said. Clearly, it’s going to be a long time before anyone can make one that fits inside of a svelte handheld.

So What Can We Do?

Seeing as a miracle breakthrough probably isn’t coming, we’re left with a number of options.

The Barebones Approach One of the devices I reviewed recently offers pretty good battery life, the Zire 21. It gets this by reducing the amount of power it uses. It has a monochrome screen, a small amount of RAM, and a relatively slow processor, but runs for over a week on a single charge.

Go Big Another handheld with a long battery life is the Tungsten C. It has a good screen, very fast processor, lots of RAM, and built-in Wi-Fi, so it is anything but bare bones. It also has a very large battery, leading to a fairly hefty handheld. So we can make handhelds with almost every feature we want, we just can’t make them super small.

Of course, it’s possible to make the device so its battery can be swapped out. This allows you to have a small device that you can use for a long time, but you have to bring the spare battery with you, which adds significantly to the bulk you have to tote around.

Lump It An option not to be ignored is simply to accept that you’re going to have to remember to recharge your handheld every night.

So, which of these options works best for you? Let us know in the forums.

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